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Black Mayor a thug? No way, he went to college – LOL


Affair Is Cited at Fraud Trial of Ex-Mayor of Newark

Mike Derer/Associated Press

Former Mayor Sharpe James of Newark is accused of steering cheap land deals to a female public relations executive.

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Published: March 4, 2008
NEWARK — There was still the familiar gap-toothed grin, the same garrulous demeanor. But once the door closed to Courtroom 4B at the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Courthouse here on Monday, it was a decidedly different Sharpe James who took center stage from the one who ruled this city as mayor for two decades. Mr. James did not say a word.Instead, the man who during three decades in politics never lost an election, and rarely met a one-liner he did not like, left it to his lawyer to fend off accusations. In a wide-ranging federal indictment, he is accused of improperly helping a Newark public relations executive in a series of favorable land deals.

“There were no kickbacks, there are no schemes,” the lawyer, Thomas Ashley, said in his opening argument of a corruption trial expected to stretch as long as three months. “What we have is Sharpe James doing business the way mayors do business.”

But the prosecutors contended in their argument that Mayor James’s way was illegal, describing a scheme to steer cheap properties to the executive — Tamika Riley, who was Mr. James’s frequent travel companion and is his co-defendant at trial — who then resold them at steep profits.

“This case is about fraud, favoritism and concealment,” Phillip Kwon, an assistant United States attorney, said in his opening statement.

Through it all, Mr. James was largely subdued. He huddled with his lawyer as the prosecutors spoke, and listened intently as his own lawyer tried to rebut the charges by arguing that regardless of the relationship between Mr. James and Ms. Riley, there was no favoritism.

And with his wife and mother in the audience, Mr. James, 72, also listened intently as the lawyer for Ms. Riley, 38, acknowledged that they had had a “personal and intimate” relationship for six months in 2002.

“These things happen sometimes between people,” said Ms. Riley’s lawyer, Gerald Krovatin. “The relationship, such as it was, had nothing to do with her acquiring the properties.”

Federal prosecutors have argued that Mr. James’s relationship with Ms. Riley was the prime motivation for what they said was his help in steering nine city-owned properties to her. She bought the properties through an urban revitalization program for a total of $46,000, in three purchases over four years, and resold them for $665,000.

In return, Mr. Kwon said, Ms. Riley carried on a relationship with Mr. James, in which she gave him $5,000 worth of boxing tickets and accompanied him on trips to the Caribbean.

“This was not a fire sale, not a land giveaway,” Mr. Kwon said of the property sale program. “It was a redevelopment project.”

Mr. Ashley said that although Mr. James did suggest that city officials follow up with Ms. Riley when she asked about the land sale program, she had qualified for the program on merit. Mr. James’s advocacy, Mr. Ashley said, was an effort to drum up interest in the city’s long-fallow housing market.

“Sharpe James’s job was to build it up, and he did,” Mr. Ashley said of housing in the city’s South Ward, where the redevelopment program was centered. “He’s not corrupt and he’s not a crook.”

Mr. Kwon said that because of Mr. James’s political influence — which was felt in every ward in the city and stretched to Trenton, where he served as a state senator — he was able to win approval for applicants for the land sale program with minimal effort. Mr. Kwon also questioned Ms. Riley’s qualifications as a developer. “Maybe Tamika Riley was great at promotion,” Mr. Kwon said. “What did that have to do with redevelopment? What did that have to do with rehabilitation?”

Mr. Ashley said that the development program had provisions for buyers who were not developers. He also challenged the prosecution’s assertion that Mr. James was able to influence decisions on applications, which had to be approved by the City Council. Mr. Ashley displayed photocopies of Council records of the votes approving the sales to Ms. Riley, including two of which Cory A. Booker, now the city’s mayor but then a council member and a frequent James opponent, voted for.

“Are they friends?” Mr. Ashley asked rhetorically of Mr. Booker and Mr. James, who fought an acidic campaign for mayor in 2002. “No, they’re anything but.”

Later, Mr. Ashley, his voice rising, said of the council members, “Sharpe James did not have a clutch on these men’s throats so they would do whatever he said do.”

Mr. Krovatin, Ms. Riley’s lawyer, acknowledged the impropriety of her relationship with Mr. James, but he asked the jury, made up of seven men and five women, to remember that neither defendant faced charges about whether their relationship was appropriate. Rather, he said, the question was whether Mr. James had improperly influenced the land sales.

Mr. Krovatin also told jurors that Ms. Riley was an established figure in Newark before her relationship with Mr. James began. “She is not a flat, one-dimensional cardboard cutout of a scarlet woman,” Mr. Krovatin said.

The trial is not the last of Mr. James’s legal troubles. He also faces a trial on charges that he improperly used city-issued credit cards to pay for nearly $60,000 worth of personal expenses while he was mayor.

Under sentencing guidelines, Mr. James could face up to eight years in prison if convicted on all counts.

The first day of the trial was not without its hiccups. Opening statements were delayed nearly three hours after United States District Judge William J. Martini dismissed two jurors, apparently because they had scheduling conflicts and said they would be unable to serve for the length of the trial.

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